I want to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous 1836 essay, “Nature,” and why one of its central ideas is dead wrong, but first I’m going to tell a true story about a bald eagle. The two thoughts are related.
A long time ago when I was still in school, I was at a religious retreat when someone from the church brought a live bald eagle for us to look at. As I recall, this person volunteered at some wildlife rescue organization. The eagle had been injured and was no longer able to fly. This was back before the bald eagle population had recovered from the effects of DDT. This was only the second one I had seen; I wouldn’t see one in the wild for another decade. The bird was wary but not agitated, and we all kept a respectful distance.
I remember that it was obvious to me at the time that the man had no particular reason to show us this bird. It was just something he wanted to do. But we were at a church retreat, and a pretty conservative church at that, and so after telling us about the species, he made several analogies to spiritual subjects and basically wrapped the whole thing into a Sunday School lesson. He probably even quoted the “They will soar on wings like eagles” verse from Isaiah.
He ended his talk this way, I think, out of some sense of moral or spiritual obligation. The eagle wasn’t allowed simply to be a wonderful being in and of itself. To be truly worthwhile it had to represent something higher, something abstract. Even at the time, that bothered me. Continue reading